Food safety audits ‘worthless, give false sense of security’

"You can make these audits useful by writing them on toilet paper. Then someone would at least use them. They’re worthless. They give a false sense of security."

That’s what the usually colorful Mansour Samadpour, president of Lake Forest Park, Wash.-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, told Stephanie Armour of the Daily Herald in a story about the Jensen Farms linked listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak that has killed 29 and sickened 139.

But not everyone agrees.

Jim Prevor, a food industry analyst in Boca Raton, Fla., says, "The auditing system has helped improved food safety a great deal. Critics are too ready to dismiss the whole system."

Jensen Farms’ packing house achieved a score of 96 percent, high enough to be ranked "superior," according to a copy of the July 25 audit by Primus Group Inc., which does business as PrimusLabs in Santa Maria, Calif., and subcontracted the review to another party.

The facility achieved total compliance for having "floor surfaces in good condition with no standing water," according to the audit. Deficiencies found included no hot water at hand- washing stations and no documented record of training on food- security issues.

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration review of Jensen Farms after the outbreak concluded the building "allowed for water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways" creating conditions that might spread listeria. The agency also found widespread contamination and unsanitary practices.

There are no generally accepted standards for the private audits and criteria may vary from inspector to inspector, said David Theno, chief executive officer of Del Mar, Calif.-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., which provides senior-level food safety and quality consultants.

Costco, based in Issaquah, Wash., sends its own auditors as well as third-party inspectors to suppliers and has in cases refused food products because problems were uncovered, said Craig Wilson, head of food safety at the warehouse club chain, in an interview. The rejected food included a seven-layer dip, eggs, dog biscuits and a hummus product, he said.

The audit at Jensen Farms was required by Edinburg, Texas- based Frontera Produce, which arranged buyers for the cantaloupe, Jim Mulhern, a spokesman for Frontera, said in an interview. Jensen Farms selected the auditor and paid for the review, he said.

"In the wake of this experience, we are examining the role of audits and looking at possible changes," Mulhern said in an email. Frontera is looking into whether more steps are needed to validate findings, such as follow-up audits, he said.

Enough back and forth. How best to improve the overall food safety system, including audits, and especially in the wild west of fresh produce?